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Commission OK's $150K for courthouse renovations

March 24th, 2014 10:07 pm by Gary B. Gray

Commission OK's $150K for courthouse renovations

The Washington County Commission voted to award $150,000 to a local contractor to complete renovations on the courthouse's second floor. (Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)

Washington County’s second-floor courthouse renovations were brought back to life Monday when County Commissioners voted to spend $150,000 to pay a professional contractor and licensed workers to complete a project begun in January 2013.

The George P. Jaynes Justice Center courtroom -- in which commissioners have been meeting for lack of new commission chambers -- was a rare shoulder-to-shoulder affair, packed not only with interested citizens but many of this year’s commission candidates.

First, a counter proposal in the form of a Budget Committee amendment to the resolution that eventually passed was debated. The amendment would have acknowledged the original County-Owned Property Committee pitch, but it also would have ended taxpayer-funded contributions toward commissioners’ health insurance to pay for renovations, and recurring savings would be placed back into the general fund.

Commissioner Phyllis Corso questioned the resolution’s legitimacy, and County Attorney Keith Bowers recommended commissioners not go forward with the amended version until it had passed through the Commercial, Industrial and Agricultural Committee. Bowers said he didn’t want to take a chance on liability issues that could arise with the insurance carrier.

“I believe it is morally and ethically wrong to hold a person’s insurance hostage,” Corso said. “Funding of $120,000 (estimate including on available funds) is not that extravagant.”

Budget Committee member Ethan Flynn said he brought the issue up three years ago, “and nobody wanted to discuss it.”

“I think time has run out. What we’re voting on is not against the law. I think it’s fair. I think we do this now so that new commissioners will know where they stand.

Following a long and many times strained discussion on funding the renovations, Commissioner Alpha Bridger asked County Mayor Dan Eldridge how much the county had in its fund balance.

“As of June 2013, $18.7 million,” he answered.

The amended resolution failed, with 11 voting for and 14 against using commissioners’ insurance to foot the bill.

From September 2011 through June 2013, county taxpayers have funded $407,376 in health insurance costs for county commissioners and their family members. The estimated cost for this fiscal year is $122,508.

The following commissioners voted against ending that benefit in order to pay for renovations: Doyle Cloyd, Sam Humphreys, Joe Sheffield, Sam Phillips, Richard Matherly, Mark Ferguson, Gearld Sparks, Roger Nave, Mike Ford, Steven Light, Ben Bowman, Bridger and Corso

Attention then turned back to the original resolution.

Eldridge reminded commissioners the estimated price tag was about $211,000, but that was with using inmate labor. The total spent to date is roughly $166,000, and about $194,000 has been either spent or committed. The county still has about $60,000 to complete the job, but about half is already spoken for.

“It has been delayed, kicked around, muddied up ad nauseam,” Corso said before the vote.

She pointed the finger at Budget Committee members saying its motive was to stop the COP committee.

“The Budget Committee has made us chew on cabbage again and again,” she added. “There is no reason to stop this.”

Budget Committee Mitch Meredith responded.

“I’m somewhat offended by Mrs. Corso’s comments,” he said. “The Budget Committee is responsible for protecting the taxpayers.”

The banter, which began in earnest nine months ago when the state fire marshal temporarily stopped the project, was put to rest in a 17-8 vote to go forward with the COP Committee’s plan.

Those voting against the plan included Budget Committee members Pete Speropulos, Joe Grandy, Meredith and Flynn, as well as Commissioners Sam Phillips, David Tomita, Ken Lyon and Mark Larkey.

Kingsport’s GoinsRashCain pulled its project manager trailer from behind the Washington County Courthouse in January after a stalemate between the two committees. Though it is not written in stone, COP Committee members want to hire Hiram Rash to oversee the completion of the building’s second-floor renovations. The full commission has not approved Rash for this task, but it has approved $6,000 for oversight. 

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